The effects of Elizabeth Carey's bid for intellectual freedom and
freedom of expression for all women are difficult to assess. Certainly, she
was not the only woman writing about such concepts during her era. Nor
was she the only author to publish her thoughts, even though she was the
first Englishwoman to publish an original drama. However, it is certainly
possible to see the same beliefs reflected in Aemilia Lanyer's often
quoted, "If Eve did erre, it was for knowledge sake" ("Eve's Apology" line
37). After all, one of the things that Elizabeth Cary seemed to believe in
strongly was a thirst for knowledge and the right for anyone to seek it.
It is certainly not difficult to believe that Elizabeth Cary might have
influenced, even indirectly, the concepts that began appearing in literary
endeavors later in the 1600's. For instance, The Mothers Legacie, To her
vnborne Childe, which was published in 1624, openly declares that
women are not only capable of learning and wisdom, but that:
I desire her bringing vp may bee learning the Bible, as my
sisters doe, good houswifely, writing, and good workes:
other learning a woman needs not: though I admire it in
those whom God hath blest with discretion, yet I desired
not much in my owne, hauing scene that sometimes
women haue greater portions of learning, than wisdorne,
which is of no beter vse to them than a main saile to a flye-boat,
which runs it vnder water. But where learning and
wisdome meet in a vertuous disposed woman, she is the
fittest closet for all goodnesse. She is like a well-ballanced
ship that may beare all her saile. (qtd. in Tebeiux and Lay
Nor was this the only time that such concepts were put into print after the
publication of The Tragedy of Mariam. In fact, it is possible that the
knowledge that other women, such as Elizabeth Cary, were writing and
publishing their thoughts gave women such as Rachel Speght and Ester
Sowernam the fortitude to publish their responses to the virulent spew that
Joseph Swetnam published in 1617. Not only did Sowernam intelligently
counter all of Swetnam's arguments, she also closed her pamphlet with a
witty, well thought out poem attributed to "Joan Sharp" that shows the
progress women were making in their attempts to articulate their opinions
in a public arena:
The humors of men, see how froward they bee;
We know not to please them in any degree:
For if we goe plaine we are sluts they doe say,
They doubt of our honesty if we goe gay;
If we be honest and merrie, for gig lots they take vs,
If modest and sober, then proud they doe make vs:
Be we housewifly quicke, then a shrew he doth keepe,
If patient and milde, then he scorneth a sheepe.
What can we deuise to doe or to say,
But men doe wrest all things the contrary way.
'Tis not so vncertaine to follow the winde,
As to seeke to please men of so humerous minde.
Their humors are giddy, and neuer long lasting,
We know not to please them, neither full nor yet fasting.
Either we doe too little, or they doe too much:
They straine our poore wits, their humors are such.
They say, women are proud, wherein made they trial I?
They moou'd some lewd suit, and had the deniall:
To be crost in such suites, men cannot abide,
And therupon we are entitled with pride.
They say we are curst and froward by kinde,
Our mildnesse is vnchanged, where raging we finde,
A good lacke sayes the prouerbe, doth make a good Gill,
A curst froward Husband doth change woman's will.
They vse vs (they say) as necessary euils,
We haue it from them, for they are our deuils.
When they are in their rages and humerous fits,
They put vs poore women halfe out of our wits.
Of all naughty women name one if you can,
If she be prou'd bad, it came by a man.
This is certainly not the type of opinionated diatribe that would have been
allowed a scant decade earlier when Elizabeth Cary's Tragedy of Mariam
was first published. True, the instances of female authorship continued to
be exceptionally rare. However, women were more often listening to the
advice of Marie de France, advice that Elizabeth Cary had proven she
Ki Deus ad dune esc"ience
E de parler bon' eloquence
Ne s'en deit taisir ne celer,
Ainz se deit volunters mustrer.
[Whoever has received knowledge
and eloquence in speech from God
should not be silent or secretive
but demonstrate it willingly.]
A willing demonstration of knowledge and eloquence is something
that women have had to fight for the right to exhibit. Elizabeth Cary was a
general in that war. She presented a play to the public that had depth,
multiple layers, and an integral call to arms to the women of her era to
participate in a subtle war to win freedom of expression. She may not
have experienced the horrors that Virginia Woolf described for
Shakespeare's sister. She may not have had a talent equal to
Shakespeare's. However, she was definitely Shakespeare's literary sister,
both chronologically and contextually.
I told you that Shakespeare had a sister. She died young-alas,
she never wrote a word ... Now my belief is that this
poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the
crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in
many other women who are not here tonight, for they are
washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But
she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing
presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among
us in the flesh. If we have the habit of freedom and the
courage to write exactly what we think; ... if we face the
fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that
we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality
and not only to the world of men and women, then the
opportunity will come and the dead poet who was
Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so
often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the
unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did
before her, she will be born. (Woolf 197-199)
Elizabeth Cary's The Tragedy of Mariam was a triumph not simply
because it was the first original drama by a female Englishwoman to be
published. It was a triumph because Elizabeth Cary embraced the
essence of what Virginia Woolf refers to as "Shakespeare's sister" and
had the courage to write exactly what she thought. It was a triumph
because Mariam was the martyr that enabled future generations of women
writers to do the same. Elizabeth Cary and her contemporaries helped to
blaze a trail of freedom of expression that women in modern society take
for granted. In the hands of Elizabeth Cary, the character of Mariam
provided a key for women to unlock the freedom to express themselves in
print. It was, without a doubt, a literary triumph.